#WithRefugees at Winchester: World Refugee Day

20 Jun 2017

Today is World Refugee Day, and in 2017 its founding principles – to commemorate 'the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees' – are as relevant as they ever were.

Dr Terri Sandison, Special Projects Manager, looks at University of Winchester initiatives which are helping to support refugees pursue their educational goals and aspirations.

On World Refugee Day 2016, the UNHCR launched its #WithRefugees petition, which called on governments around the world to ensure that every refugee child gets an education, that every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, and that every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

At the heart of this pledge are education and skills, highlighting the important role that higher education has to play in the response to the global refugee crisis. Universities have a long history of helping people displaced by conflict and we are responding in different ways to help displaced people pursue higher education.

Supporting displaced students

Winchester was one of the first universities in the UK to offer a fee waiver scheme for one student per year who was already living in the UK, but seeking asylum. This was set up in 2010 through the Helena Kennedy Foundation’s ‘Article 26 Project’.

In 2014 we launched our own scheme with an enhanced offer. The Sanctuary Award waives tuition fees and now offers a bursary of £3,000 a year to support the costs of study. From 2017, we are supporting five new students each year with an Award.

Since 2010, 18 students from 11 countries have received awards. Six have so far graduated, with another five due to graduate this year. Some are mature students, some have progressed to the University from care and some have been in the country since before starting primary school.

All of them have overcome significant challenges, from fleeing their home country and the traumas associated with this and very poor living and housing conditions, to language barriers and the long process of applying for refugee status. University study is often their main source of stability, providing hope for the future. For the five past and current students who have children, gaining a degree is seen as a source of inspiration for them, as well as a possible pathway to a secure financial future.

At-risk academics

The University is a member of the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), founded in 1933 by Britain's foremost academics and scientists in response to Hitler's decision to expel hundreds of leading scholars from German universities on racial grounds.

Cara helps academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile, and the many academics who choose to remain in their home countries despite the serious risks they face.

Every year, Cara receives hundreds of requests for help from at-risk academics. In partnership with universities and research institutes, trusts and foundations and other like-minded organisations, as well as academics and other concerned individuals, Cara offers solidarity, support to reach a place where they can work in safety, and financial and practical help.

In March, Winchester staff and students had an opportunity to find out more about Cara’s important work when Executive Director Stephen Wordsworth visited to explain more about the organisation and how the University can be more actively involved. Since his visit, one of our Sanctuary Award students has been accepted by Cara for a voluntary work experience placement over the summer.

Reaching out beyond the University

Winchester also works to support the wider refugee community both in the city and in the region.

An example of this is our excellent relationship with the Rural Refugee Network (RRN), a charity set up in 2015 by a group of local volunteers in East Hampshire and West Sussex. The RRN aims to help Syrian refugees resettle into rural communities across the UK and to rehouse Syrian individuals and families, providing them with the resources and support they need to feel part of their community, however long their stay.

In May, we hosted a ‘family day’, bringing a number of Syrian families together on campus to help them socialise and to meet University staff and students (pictured above in the . In August, we’re looking forward to a residential for up to 30 asylum-seeker children and young people. Co-ordinated by our Widening Participation team, the event will include a range of welcoming and supportive activities including the involvement of staff and students from our Performing Arts Department.

Learning the language

One of the many barriers to settling into a new country is learning the language. Two University staff who are qualified English teachers are volunteers helping to support Syrian families who have been settled in Winchester. 

The experience is proving a positive one. Volunteer David Street, Head of International Recruitment, says of his experience to date:
“Our work together has enabled R to significantly develop his speaking and listening skills, and to establish some basic reading and writing skills. This language work with R will enable him, and his family, to more easily adapt to life in the UK and to develop a circle of friends and contacts beyond the small Syrian community in Winchester. Furthermore, it will provide him with a pathway to securing a job and, therefore, stability for him and his family.
“The work I've done with R has given me deeper insight into the plight and resilience of families such as R's, and I consider it an honour to have been given the chance to work with him. I will continue to meet with him for as long as he wishes and I hope this is just the start of a lengthy friendship between us. Before Christmas, R and his wife invited me and my wife to his house to meet the family, and to share a meal with them. This was a wonderful gesture on his part, and we treasure our memories of that evening. It was the highlight of our year.”

In the future, we hope to enhance and develop our various different strands of support, both financial and other, for people displaced by conflict.

For now, the last words go to one of Winchester’s Sanctuary Award students who is graduating this year:

“As an asylum seeker my life was in limbo due to the unknown future, unexpected circumstances and limited opportunities. The Award was like a light in the darkness and a breath of a fresh hope. In every aspect, studying at the University of Winchester was an amazing experience and an eye opener. It gave me the confidence and the opportunity to work to the best of my ability and potential which I didn't think I have. My heartfelt gratitude goes to all who supported me all the way through, my tutors, class mates and friends who made this dream come true.”


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